Relaxing in a nearby park near in Ljubljana, Slovenia I cannot believe it was almost three weeks ago when I watched the butterflies and the bees swarming on a patch of wildflowers on Srd Mountain in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Despite the heavy damage during the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, the medieval limestone walls of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, carved within the rocky coastline 1,352 feet below the mountain top, held strong.
The small group of us, all seasoned travelers stood among the castle walls, now the War Museum, listening to Mira Knezevic, a survivor of the Balkan war. Mira’s story described a ‘young woman’ [herself at age 18] full of life and planning her future, doing what most young girls do. As darkness fell, so did the bombs. The night glowed with an eerie red, as the bombs exploded, shattering the young woman’s dreams.
She captured our attention with her provocative words in her native tongue of what she endured as Croatia officially escalated tensions by defying Serbian rule and declaring independence on June 25th, 1991.
After years of ground combat, as blood spilled across the regions of Yugoslavia – Croatia and Bosnia -- tens of thousands of lives were lost as the people, without training or affiliation with any military group, defended their homeland.
Finally, in 1995 after two offensives – known as Operation Flash and Operation Storm—effectively ended the war in a victory for Croatia and Bosnia. The land was blackened and much of the infrastructure destroyed, but the spirit and determination of the people was not.
With the sadness of war never far from my thoughts, the natural beauty of the Serbian Montenegro took my breath away as we drove from Croatia to Kotor. It was easy to understand how this region was able to avoid being conquered by the Ottoman Turks in the 1300’s with soaring alpine mountains and the rugged coastline.
Kotor, an ancient village, is a well-preserved medieval walled town situated at the head of southern Europe’s deepest natural bay, the Bay of Kotor. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and filled with ancient churches and aristocratic mansions along the narrow, cobbled streets.
Back in Dubrovnik, I watched my last glimpse of the brilliant orange sun disappear into the Adriatic Sea. The next morning my travel companions said “dovidenja” (goodbye) to Dubrovnik as our driver Silvia maneuvered our bright red bus like a surgeon with a scalpel, on winding country roads, to our next border crossing to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Along the way, we stopped in Mostar, an ancient town famous for the watchtower keepers of its historic bridge; a place where the cultures of the Middle East and Europe mingled, blending influences from the mainland and the Adriatic Sea. Destroyed in 1993 during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the 16th century bridge spanning the Neretva River, was rebuilt in 2004 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We saw remnants of the war and the 1984 Winter Olympics as we drove through Sarajevo, a shining star of ethnic diversity. After Presidents Tito’s death, the region quickly descended into chaos during the Yugoslav war in 1991 as Bosnian Serb artillery pounded the city during a three-and-a-half-year siege.
During our visit, we had an opportunity to share a home-cooked meal with a Bosnian family for an intimate discussion of life in the past and in the present. As we feasted in our host's apartment, typical of the drab gray cement architecture found in the Soviet Union, it was pitted with large pockets in the cement from sniper blasts.
This Sarajevo neighborhood was known during the Bosnian War as “Sniper Alley”, a nickname for the most dangerous place in the city for civilians to live and work. Serb snipers’ shells pouring in from the surrounding hills slaughtered over 10,000 innocents; all life was a target because that is what cleansing is. Starvation forced the people to build a tunnel referred to as the Tunnel of Hope, a vast underground passage dug in 1993 to ferry people out and bring supplies in.
A highlight for our group was sitting high on a ridge overlooking the city, chatting with our guide’s mother, a survivor of the Bosnian war. She brought local food she makes, greeting us with a beautiful smile. We chatted about her son Taib and his upcoming marriage, avoiding the tough questions. We already knew what she endured, raising a small child alone during the war. Her husband, Taib’s father, was killed protecting their village when he was a very young boy. She made the trip through the tunnel 14 times to get food and supplies. The love and respect between son and mother was obvious and we all felt grateful to be a part of this experience.
From Bosnia we once again crossed back into Croatia, enjoying the capital of Zagreb, a busy city with wonderful food, wine, botanical gardens surrounded by the beauty of the country side, and nearby, exploring Plitvice Lakes, a National Park. This area covers 114 square miles with 16 turquoise lakes linked by a series of waterfalls and cascades. This area was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
I was mesmerized by the Adriatic Sea as we entered the small seaside resort town of Opatija in the Kvarner Gulf that separates Dalmatia from Istria. Above this small town is the area called Hill Towns of Istria, a group of small villages that surround the region. The area is famous for its’ vineyards, fields, and the forests with their mysterious symbiotic fungi, the black and white truffle. It is said that the area around Motovun, one of the 136 medieval towns, is so rich in truffles, that during the fall and winter there are 12,000 dogs wandering the Istrian forests sniffing for the expensive
Our last country on this multi-country tour is Slovenia, the Slavic nation of soaring mountains of forest, meadows, and alpine villages. This country was the first to claim independence and break away from the Yugoslav federation with a war that lasted less than ten days. The most famous UNESCO site is the Skocjanske Caves, a 3-mile-long network of karst limestone caverns 650 feet underground in western Slovenia.
The natural beauty of the countries we explored, the sea, the lakes, the forests, and the mountains is spectacular.
However, for me, this trip is about the people of this region, what they endured and who they are today. They are friendly, strong, passionate and proud. And the common thread, throughout the crossroads of the Adriatic, was the admiration of the people for their leader, Tito. History remembers him as the first Communist leader in power to defy Soviet hegemony. But his people remember him as a humble man, a common man, who brought prosperity for his country until he died in 1980.
The people of this region truly represent the pollinators of the Balkans ensuring nourishment for the soul as well as for the stomach.
For more information:
The War and the US
Movie: Scream for Me in Sarajevo